I confess that ever since I can remember, I have had a hero. It was, admittedly, not the same person all the time, but there was always one nevertheless. Someone who made a profound difference, one who changed my life, so to speak. The impact he made might have been in a hard-to-notice way on an insignificant aspect of my character, but change me they all did.
I was barely sixteen when I met him in 1963. Prof Veeramony (He was not a professor yet, then) taught us calculus in Sanatana Dharma College, Alleppey. The first day I met him, he told me to my immense delight that we had something in common: he was an alumnus of the Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam from where I had migrated to the college where he was teaching.
In the early days of my association, it was his style of dressing that attracted me. Unlike other teachers, who wore the western attire, some of them complete with a jacket, he was a desi in his appearance: a shirt and a dhoti.
Those who know about the 1960’s would recall that terylene was the fabric in vogue. And the Professor had an enviable collection of those shirts in all pastel shades, subtle stripes and self-design material. And his dhotis were an immaculate white, sheer cotton from the then coveted mills in Ahmedabad of the likes of Arvind and Mafatlal.
He was on the wrong side of thirty, but the youngest of our teachers. Tall, lean and fair-skinned, he sported a moustache and WAS the hero of the college. He had a resonant voice and even a lecture on differentiation would sound musical, with a mellifluous flow of cadences, rises and falls. He lived not more than a couple of miles from the college and would travel riding his shining new green Hercules bicycle, a burning cigarette between his index finger and the middle. A bachelor, he stole many a heart, predictably.
Not all students came to the college excited to learn Calculus; many were there because they could not make it to the Medical or the Engineering College. Some were using it as a stepping stone or biding their time. The professor was the type of teacher who could make his class not only exciting, but memorable. So much so that they would fall in love with the subject.
The concept that any constant, on being differentiated, reduces to zero while the exponential function remains unchanged was etched into the memory of the dumbest student when he narrated the case of the mathematician who went insane and believed that he was the differentiation operator. His friends had him placed in a mental hospital until he got better. The other inmates of the asylum were all constants. All day he would go around frightening the other patients by staring at them and saying, 'I differentiate you!'
One day a new patient arrived in the sanatorium. True to form, he stared at him and screamed, 'I'll differentiate you!' For once, his threat had no impact on the victim.
Surprised, the mathematician marshalled his energies, stared fiercely at the new patient and said even more loudly, 'I differentiate you!', but still the other man had no reaction. Finally, in frustration, the mathematician screamed out 'I DIFFERENTIATE YOU!'
The new patient calmly looked up and said, 'You can differentiate me all you like: I'm e raised to the power of x.'
I have seen none who could draw a perfect circle on the blackboard with the help of no instruments. Absolutely straight lines were child's play. It was sheer beauty to watch the way drew the 'dotted lines' (to indicate that they were part of 'construction'): he would hold the end of a long chalkpiece rather lightly and 'jump' it along the blackboard. You could hear a muted 'Tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk...' as the chalkpiece hit the blackboard in regular beats and see the 'dotted line' emerge.The professor was a martinet within the four walls of the classroom. He set out his terms during his first lecture: ‘I demand undivided attention. If you cannot provide that, you have no place here.’
And he was true to his words. If he caught someone engaged in an activity he was not supposed to be doing at the moment, he would quiz him, ‘Hey, there, what are you doing, Thomas?’ A petrified Thomas would naturally mumble a feeble ‘Nothing’ but the Professor would show him the door, saying ‘This is not the place to do nothing.’
If you caught him breaking his chalk into a tiny bit, the action not in the least interrupting the process of working out a problem on the blackboard, you knew that the tiny bit of chalk would soon turn into a projectile and land with some force on the head of someone who was nodding, or doing something non-academic.
Professor Veeramony was as cordial and affable outside the classroom as he was strict within. In my days, I had never seen a teacher or a professor on backslapping terms with his students. They were a bunch of people to be respected, if not afraid of.
With his resonant voice, he could sing very well. I guess he must have had some training in classical music. Whenever I hear a particular Malayalam film song (Shankupushpam kannezhuthumpol…) from Shakuntala, I remember him because of his soulful rendering of that all time great on the day we bid farewell to the college. In response to or request for an encore, he sang ‘Jalte hain jiske liye, teri aankhon ke liye …’ from Sujata ‘better than Talat Mahmood’, as a classmate commented.
On Saturdays and Sundays, he would be sighted in the college ground playing cricket with students. After that, he would go for movies and take some student or other with him. He used to frequent restaurants, particularly, the Indian Coffee House.
A lot of stories about him, some of them possibly apocryphal, were in circulation: how he came from an ordinary family, how brilliant he was as a student, how his father had given him total freedom, how his parents gave him the freedom to smoke at home, how he was free to spend all the money he earned, and the like. Given the salaries college teachers were paid (in those pre-UGC Scale days) and his munificence, the Professor needed more money. And he earned it through tuitions.
It was natural for teachers to have a soft corner for those who took tuitions, but Professor Veeramony was different. No special treatment for them. On the contrary, there seen to be a hint of derision in his approach towards them: ‘you have to lean on the crutch I provide because you are slow on the uptake’, he seemed to say. (That was one important lesson I learnt from him – not to treat someone better because his relationship with you went beyond the official realm. This lesson has stood me in good stead in my later life: not once in my career have I been charged with nepotism.)
One Sunday evening I was ambling along Mullackal Road, possibly running some errand for the house, when I heard a tinkle of the bell of the bicycle and his voice. He invited me for a cup of coffee. That was the first time I stepped into the hallowed premises of the Indian Coffee House – ‘hallowed’ because eating out was not the done thing for a boy from the middleclass background as much for disapprobation by the elders as for lack of pocket money.
He talked to me for some time about my plans in life. The bearer who came for taking the order seemed to know him well. The professor too knew all the bearers, something only to be expected of a person who visited the eatery every single day. He ordered a masala dosa ghee roast and a tall glass of cold coffee for me – again, another first time experience for me. After a while, we parted company, but the aroma of the ghee, the taste of the mashed potato, carrot and beetroot filling in the masala dosa, and the sweetness of the coffee still linger.
On our last day in college, he had said, ‘A teacher's greatest joy is seeing his students attain success.’ It was after the lapse of over two decade of my leaving college that I ran into the Professor again. He had got married, switched jobs and relocated. He was delighted that I was doing rather well for myself in the job I had found myself. I thanked him, not for courtesy’s sake, but from the bottom of my heart. ‘You made my day!’ said the Professor. To which I replied, ‘Sir, you made my life!’